Fleeing Iran With a Young Daughter

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader tells the story of a brave accomplished American—her mom:

I saw that you guys are interested in hearing about naturalized citizens. My story is mildly interesting, but my mother’s is amazing (we are both naturalized citizens). This is her story to the best of my recollection.

My mom was born and raised in northern Iran. By all accounts, she was incredibly accomplished, even in her youth. She went to the best university at the time, Shiraz University, and studied horticulture. She went on to get a Master’s in that subject in Iran and later a PhD in the U.S.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. When the Shah came to visit her hometown, my mom was chosen as the town’s ambassador to greet him at a young age. When she was in high school, my mom competed in what is essentially the Miss Iran contest, wherein the contestants had to tailor their own attire for one part of the event—another talent she has. Although she did not win, she was a finalist (apparently it’s all political).

During her university studies, my mom married a dapper basketball player who later became my father. The marriage was against the advice of all her family, I am told. My father became addicted to gambling and drugs. In Iran, as you may know, it is quite difficult for women to get divorced from their husbands. Once I was in the picture, Mom was focused on getting a divorce so she could safely get me out of Iran.

Her undergraduate training had been in English, and she and my father had lived in San Diego in the late 1970s (having moved back to Iran, sadly, just prior to the revolution). So my mom felt comfortable with English and figured out a way to get funding to pursue her PhD in the United States. The only trouble, then, was the divorce. It’s a long story involving having to get my father’s signature on a form wherein he admitted wrongdoing. She eventually managed to get that and the divorce, and we fled Iran in 1985. I was five years old at the time.

We landed in Florida, where my mom had a friend from college and hoped to have financial support for her PhD. Unfortunately, the professor she had arranged to meet with was not able to provide her support.

So my mom was alone in the U.S, with a five-year-old child and little money. However, she had previously been admitted to Iowa State University (and declined), so we traveled there to see if they would admit her again. As you’ve gathered by now, Mom is a resourceful woman. We met with the professor who went on to become her PhD advisor, and he agreed to support her! The only downside was we had to wait a few months. Luckily, Mom had a cousin who was living in the Bay Area at the time, so we flew out there and stayed with her for a few months before going back to Iowa.

Having a PhD myself now, I cannot imagine going through it alone, in a new country, with a young unforgiving child. But she did it, completing her horticulture PhD in four years.

After her post-doctoral studies, we moved to California, where I remained until just a couple of years ago. Only then could we apply for Green Cards, because prior to then she was on a student visa. We got these when I was 14, and shortly after that mom made her first trip back to Iran. (I couldn’t go because I was in school.) Once we had our Green Cards, we applied for citizenship, which obviously takes several years. We eventually both took our citizenship exams and became proud citizens when I was 22.

Going through the naturalization process was a bit bizarre for me, as the questions you have to prepare for are simpler than those on the AP U.S. History test I had taken in high school. Having come here at such a young age, I was pretty much an American taking an American citizenship test. Mom is an avid reader, so she didn’t have much trouble either.

The day of the ceremony we were so impressed by the number of people gathered together swearing their allegiance to their new country. For us this meant many things, including the freedom to travel the world. I had spent a semester in Paris in college and watched enviously as all my classmates traveled all over Europe. Since this was before the EU and before we became American citizens, I had to remain in France. I was, therefore, acutely aware of how many more opportunities I would have with my new American passport. After all these years, we finally proudly became citizens of the world’s most important democracy.

I went to the University of Southern California with a full-tuition scholarship and studied biomedical engineering and French. From there I went to Stanford Medical School and later on to residency in general surgery and a PhD in education. I am now an assistant professor of surgery at Washington University in St. Louis. I’m attaching a picture from a recent trip we took to South America, at Iguazu Falls.

As I said at the beginning, mom’s story is amazing. And in the current political climate, I fear we are losing what it means to be American.